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February 17, 2017 2:33 am

Israel-Turkey Ties Ease Into New Era With ‘Soft’ Collaboration

avatar by Karel Valansi / JNS.org

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (right) with Kemal Okem, Turkey’s first ambassador to Israel since the restoration of those countries’ diplomatic relations. Photo: Isaac Harari/Flash90.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (right) with Kemal Okem, Turkey’s first ambassador to Israel since the restoration of those countries’ diplomatic relations. Photo: Isaac Harari/Flash90.

JNS.org – Earlier this month, officials from the Turkish and Israeli foreign ministries met for the first time in more than six years to discuss cooperation in areas such as energy, trade and tourism. As Turkey and Israel ease into a new era in their relationship, collaboration on more sensitive issues like security has been slower to emerge.

Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem and Turkish Foreign Undersecretary Umit Yalcin met in Ankara on February 1st. Both countries agreed to normalize ties last summer.

The two sides also agreed to future exchange visits by government ministers as well as business, academic and cultural delegations, starting with visits to Israel by Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avci and Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci. Avci visited Israel last week to attend the International Mediterranean Tourism Market exhibition in Tel Aviv. His trip was the first Turkish ministerial visit to the Jewish State since the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, which triggered the deterioration of Turkey-Israel ties.

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A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be named, told JNS.org that “cooperation in tourism, energy, the economy, etc. will come [first], while security and intelligence issues may take some time [to develop]. But I can say that both sides have the [desire] and will try their best so that all the dimensions of the relationship can be fully restored.”

Yet, on the same day as the recent bilateral consultations in Ankara, Turkey condemned the Israeli government’s approval of the construction of new settlements.

“Israel’s continuation of such acts that threaten to destroy the basis for a lasting peace, despite the constant warnings of the international community, causes dismay,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

‘Step-by-step’ normalization

In addition to the talks in Ankara, a visiting delegation led by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Rotem met with Governor of Istanbul, Vasip Sahin. Shai Cohen, the Israeli Consul General in Istanbul, described that meeting as “very good, open and friendly.”

“We talked about cooperation projects, about the need to work with determination on all mutual issues. … We also talked about Istanbul being a major city with a lot of potential to further expand [our bilateral] relations,” Cohen said.

The normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations is “starting, step by step, mainly on ‘soft power’ [issues] like trade, culture, academic ties and tourism,” explained Cohen.

The Israeli delegation also met with the chief rabbi of Turkey, Rav Ishak Haleva, and prominent members of the Turkish Jewish community.

According to Nisya İsman Allovi, the director of  the Jewish Museum of Turkey,  “The delegation [also learned about] Turkish diplomats serving in several countries under Nazi occupation, who succeeded in saving the lives of Jews from Nazi atrocities. [These figures included] Selahattin Ülkümen, Turkey’s Consul General at Rhodes from 1943-1944, who was honored in 1990 by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.”

Rotem wrote on Twitter that he was “moved to learn so much about Istanbul’s rich Jewish history at the city’s Jewish Museum and to meet with Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva.”

Turkish minister’s Israel trip

During his landmark visit to Israel last week, Turkish Tourism Minister Avci spoke at a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.

“There were 260,000 Israelis who visited Turkey last year, and I think it is possible to raise the number to 600,000, as it was before [bilateral ties deteriorated],” Avci said. Levin, meanwhile, said Israel sees Turkey as a successful model for its tourism industry.

Avci’s itinerary in Israel also included attending the inauguration of Jaffa’s Turkish Culture House, an event that was postponed indefinitely when Turkish-Israeli ties broke down in 2010.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, called Avci’s visit a “significant move towards future cooperation” between Israel and Turkey.

“These efforts will only be fruitful if they [are] supported by [further action],” Yanarocak said. “Therefore, more senior-level bilateral visits should take place.”

Karel Valansi is a political correspondent for the Istanbul-based Şalom Jewish weekly newspaper.

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